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Analysis | Britain’s Rolling Railway Crisis Is No Joke


Yuriko Kotani, a Japanese stand-up comedian based in the UK, tells of seeing a poster on a London Overground train that proclaimed 93.4% of services ran within five minutes of their scheduled time. Her confused reaction: “Are they apologizing?”

Those who have traveled on a train in Japan, or one of the other ultra-efficient rail and metro systems in Asia, will recognize the kernel of truth in the joke. Going by rail in Britain is to travel in a different world. The expectations benchmark starts from a lower level. The industry also gives the impression of being stuck in a permanent loop, where the same issues of dysfunction and labor strife resurface at regular intervals. Anyone who left the UK before the railways were privatized and returned three decades later in time for the latest wave of strikes (like this writer) might be struck by how little things appear to have changed. Standing in freezing rain on a century-old platform waiting for a train that’s not coming (no one in Hong Kong or Tokyo checks the industrial action schedule before setting out for the station), the question naturally arises: Why can’t Britain get its railways right?

The question is probably unfair. In reality, there have been significant improvements. It’s just that they’re patchy, and therefore easy to miss, depending on where you are. The Elizabeth Line has speeded the journey from commuter towns to the west and east of London to and through the capital, adding spacious and spotless new trains and platforms (even if more than three years late and in excess of £4 billion over budget). There are the redeveloped King’s Cross and Reading stations, almost unrecognizable from their previous incarnations; and the upgraded Chiltern Line that carries tourists from London’s Marylebone to the designer shopping magnet of Bicester Village just over an hour away (with service announcements in Chinese).

A high-speed rail line will link the capital with Birmingham, the second-largest city, and the northwest by 2033 — though let’s not dwell on the fact that China built the world’s biggest high-speed rail network from scratch since the UK first start discussing the project.

For all the improvements, Britain’s railways are in trouble. Punctuality has declined (a 93% on-time arrival rate would be a dream for most of the national rail network; London is managed separately). So has passenger satisfaction, which reached a 10-year low in 2018 after the botched introduction of a new timetable caused chaos (it rebounded somewhat before the survey was suspended during the pandemic). Covid-19 devastated passenger numbers, as in most countries, and they have yet to recover fully. Meanwhile, a possible resolution to the dispute between railway operating companies and trade unions won’t remove the longer-term structural issues weighing on the industry. 

Put simply, the system is a mess. Don’t take a mere columnist’s word for it: That is essentially the verdict of a report commissioned by the party that was responsible for creating the industry’s current form. “The railways lack a guiding focus on customers, coherent leadership and strategic direction,” reads the 2021  Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail. “They are too fragmented, too complicated, and too expensive to run. Innovation is difficult. Incentives are often perverse. Some working practices have not changed in decades.”

The 116-page document, named after Keith Williams, the former British Airways chief executive officer appointed to conduct the review, and Grant Shapps, the transport secretary until September, makes fascinating reading. Rarely can a party in power have so thoroughly disparaged a policy that it was responsible for designing and implementing. Fingered for blame is the cardinal feature of the 1993 privatization enacted by the Conservative government of then-Prime Minister John Major: the decision to separate state-owned British Rail into one company that owns the infrastructure and a series of mostly private franchise train operators that lease the “rolling stock.”

“Breaking British Rail into dozens of pieces was meant to foster competition between them and, together with the involvement of the private sector, was supposed to bring greater efficiency and innovation,” the report says, concluding: “Little of this has happened.” The disparate structure has created “a range of knock-on problems including spiraling costs, commercial failures, poor maintenance, delays to upgrades and a burden on both users and taxpayers.” Radical change was needed. Too often, the railways “are not getting the basics right, starting with running the trains on time” and “making it easy to buy a ticket.” “Complex and adversarial relationships” between operators, suppliers, infrastructure owner Network Rail and government “do not meet the needs” of passengers. And so on.

Some of the examples of dysfunction border on the surreal. Network Rail employs almost 400 so-called train-delay attributors whose job, in the report’s words, is “to argue with each other about whose fault a delay is.” About 40% of delays are disputed, and there is a 199-page rulebook and independently chaired panel to adjudicate the process. One case turned on whether a pheasant is a small bird — in which case, the train operator was to blame for hitting one — or a large bird, in which case the rules decreed it was Network Rail’s problem. Really.

Whisper it softly, but the Williams-Shapps plan’s solution is to recreate something much more akin to the old British Rail — cunningly disguised by placing “Great” in front of the new name. Great British Railways (which will also adopt British Rail’s iconic double-arrow logo) will be a single unified body that will both own the infrastructure and plan fares and timetables. It will replace franchising with a concession model that mirrors the public-private system used in Germany and Sweden, among other countries.

The plan makes evident sense. But will it happen? Shapps was transport secretary under Boris Johnson, a self-proclaimed believer in rail and an economic interventionist. But Johnson has gone. The prospective rebirth of a powerful state monolith has stirred opposition in the Conservative Party, with its attachment to private enterprise. The Williams-Shapps plan is being rewritten to weaken the role of Great British Railways and bring back franchising, the Telegraph newspaper reported this month. The reorganization is unlikely to be enacted before the next general election, according to the report. The opposition Labour Party, which is leading in the polls and is committed to bringing the railways back into public ownership, may be running the country by then.

The reasons behind the UK railway crisis are many and complex, but the debate over public versus private ownership is probably a red herring. Look around the world, and it’s clear that either can work. Switzerland’s train network, usually ranked as the best in Europe, is publicly owned. Japan’s railways, named the planet’s most efficient in a World Economic Forum report in 2019, are in private hands. Hong Kong’s MTR Corp., the global No. 2, is listed on the stock market but controlled by the government.

Britain’s rail efficiency came in at 31st in the WEF report, trailing France and Germany in 15th and 16th, and far behind the country’s overall economic competitiveness rating of ninth. A flawed structure is surely part of the answer, but other more nebulous cultural factors have probably played a part, including the UK’s history of antagonistic industrial relations. 

Politics aside, whoever is in charge of Britain’s railways after the next election will face the challenge of how to pay for them. Even when run privately, almost all railways require public subsidies. Government support for the industry ballooned to £17.6 billion in the 12 months through March 2021, the first year of the pandemic, from £6.8 billion a year earlier. Given the fiscal strains created by Covid-19 and the even more urgent crisis facing the National Health Service, these won’t be easy choices.

There are lots of reasons to love trains. They are environmentally friendly, producing only 1% of Britain’s carbon emissions; they prevent urban sprawl and invigorate economies along their arteries; and they’re more relaxing than driving. They do cost money, though. And there’s some evidence that you get what you pay for: Switzerland, notably, also ranks as the European country that invests the most in rail infrastructure,(1) spending more than twice as much per capita as the UK, according to 2021 figures from Allianz pro Schiene, a German nonprofit railway association. 

Britain’s trains may never be as punctual, efficient or service-oriented as those of fastidious Japan. Many parts of the network could still be a lot nicer, though. It would be a shame if ideological wrangling or financial pressures set the industry back on the wrong track again.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Summer of Britain’s Railway Discontent: Therese Raphael

• A London Landmark to Cherish? When Pigs Fly: Matthew Brooker

• UK Summer of Discontent Is a Tale of Bad Planning: Martin Ivens

(1) Other than Luxembourg, which is too small to be considered comparable.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Brooker is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering finance and politics in Asia. A former editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News and deputy business editor for the South China Morning Post, he is a CFA charterholder.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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